Rabbinical Thinking

Book cover
When Jesus Came to Harvardby Harvey Cox

Houghton Mifflin. 353p $25


What would Jesus do? This simple formula has found its way onto wristbands and T-shirts as WWJD. It is promoted as the Christian’s sure guide to the right moral choice. But this is not the question Harvard theologian Harvey Cox uses to catch the moral significance of Jesus. In fact, he has reasons to be suspicious of the question.

When Jesus Came to Harvard is the fruit of 20 years of teaching “Jesus and the Moral Life,” a course in the Moral Reasoning division of the core curriculum for Harvard undergraduates. With this book Professor Cox leaves the secular city, where religious traditions are shoved into the corner of society, and enters the central religious stories of the Christian tradition that have shaped cultures and inspired and guided the lives of many generations.

For Cox, “What would Jesus do?” is too simple. While it is well-intentioned in its understanding that Christian moral choices must somehow imitate Jesus, WWJD can distract us from finding the moral significance of Jesus for today. It too easily opens the way for mimicry by ignoring the historically conditioned, culturally bound nature of Jesus and of the biblical texts that reveal him to us. His circumstances were not ours.

In turning to Jesus as the test for character and conduct, Cox is not writing another “search for the historical Jesus.” The quests have tried to uncover Jesus as he was in his own time. But they leave him there and then. Cox is interested in the moral significance of Jesus here and now. But how can Jesus then help us in discerning the right thing to do now? The answer, says Cox, lies in the imagination.

The Jesus who comes to Harvard by invitation from Professor Cox is Rabbi Jesus. This is the Jesus who relied on narrative and example more than on principle and precept. He taught not by giving an easy answer but by asking another question or telling a story. To use Jesus as a guide to moral choices, we must first trust in the power of his stories to jump-start the mind and memory to make associations with similar experiences in our own life.

We must also retrieve a missing dimension of moral reflection—the imagination, our capacity to distinguish what is important and what is not, to envision possibilities beyond an apparent impasse and to appreciate how others see things and might be affected by certain actions.

The introductory chapters present Cox’s underlying convictions about the imagination as an indispensable component of moral reflection and as the link between Jesus and us. To explain the imagination as the bridge between Jesus then and there and ourselves here and now, he uses the musical image of a jazz riff. The jazz musician starts with the theme of a tune and then embellishes it without leaving the original tune completely behind. We might also call this process exercising the analogical imagination, or finding a way of acting that harmonizes with, but does not mimic, the stories and example of Jesus.

The subsequent chapters tell the story of Jesus from Christmas to Easter in three stages. The first part draws upon stories about Jesus from the infancy narratives. The middle part covers the Sermon on the Mount, parables and healing stories. The third part again draws from stories told about Jesus in the passion narratives and the Easter story. Each chapter begins with a biblical excerpt that becomes the prime analogate setting the paradigm for a moral response. The chapter is a commentary on the biblical text. Some chapters, but not all, bring us further into the conversation that ensued as his class imaginatively engaged these stories to inform their moral choices. Unfortunately, we do not get access to much of this dialogue with or among the students. Nevertheless, we are left with insight into how moral values do not float freely but are always embedded in narratives, rituals and lived examples.

The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were those chapters that developed more clearly the power of narrative to evoke imaginative associations, emotion and the demands of reason to arrive at a response that fits the pattern of relations in the biblical account. This is especially well developed in Cox’s treatment of the passion narratives. His treatment of “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” for example, gives an imaginative reflection on the nature of moral agency, the scope of human freedom and the role of intentionality in moral behavior.

Similarly, he makes moving and insightful connections to the morality of torture, which regrettably seems to be making a comeback. Here he shows how moral reasoning drained of emotion is sterile and lifeless, while emotion without reason can become hysterical or sentimental. While many moral philosophers reject emotion as only fogging the mind and undermining our capacity to make sound moral judgments, Cox shows the indispensable role of emotion as the imagination’s companion in moral reflection. Since our moral sensitivity can too easily be anesthetized by overexposure to sanitized media violence, he calls for stories that start the mind and memory racing again to empathize with the pain in others and to imagine what our actions do to them. He shows how the stories of Jesus’ passion can do just that.

These exciting chapters from the section on the passion narratives stand in contrast to earlier chapters. They are somewhat flat by comparison, because they do not harmonize as well any morally appropriate action with the story setting the theme. How does the story of the annunciation, for example, inform one’s moral choice to donate ova? How does the story of the flight into Egypt inform the plight of today’s refugees? How does the story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert inform styles of leadership? Cox teases us with these and other Gospel stories, but does not play out his riff.

Overall, When Jesus Came to Harvard is a creative way to introduce someone to Jesus for the first time. Cox’s commentaries on selected stories by and about Jesus are clearly and imaginatively presented. They could make Gospel material accessible to those beyond Harvard Yard who are uninitiated in critical biblical studies, Christology or moral theology. But the chapters are better at introducing us to Jesus than they are in connecting the stories to moral choices. Making the connections would require a facilitated discussion stimulated by these stories. For this reason, I could see this book being used effectively in adult faith-formation programs. The author’s engaging style should easily evoke a conversation about his insights into the biblical stories and his moral applications of them. If we let our imaginations play with these stories of Jesus as Cox does, we too might find creative ways to be faithful to Jesus and the present call of the Spirit.

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